Taken from Factfinder for the Nation, U.S. Census Bureau
Factfinding is one of America's oldest activities. In the early 1600s, a census was taken in Virginia, and people were counted in nearly all of the British colonies that became the United States at the time of the Revolutionary War. (There also were censuses in other areas of the country before they became parts of the United States.)
Following independence, there was an almost immediate need for a census of the entire Nation. Both the number of seats each state was to have in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the states' respective shares in paying for the war were to be based on population. Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, provided:
- Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be
included within this Union,
according to their respective Numbers. . . . The actual
Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting
of the Congress of the United
States, and within every
subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by
Our Founding Fathers had concluded that the states' wishes to report few people in order to lower their shares in the war debt would be offset by a desire for the largest possible representation in Congress. Thus, the census would be fairly accurate.
The First U.S. Census: 1790
Shortly after George Washington became President, the first census was taken. It listed the head of household, and counted (I) the number of free White males age 16 and over, and under 16 (to measure how many men might be available for military service), (2) the number of free White females, all other free persons (including any Indians who paid taxes), and (3) how many slaves there were. Compared with modern censuses, this was a crude operation. The law required that the returns be made in a specified form, but the enumerators (U.S. marshals and their assistants) had to furnish their own paper, using all sorts of books and sheets to record the information. It took 18 months to complete the census..
After the returns were completed, the enumerator was required to post them "at two of the most public places...to remain for the inspection of all concerned." By contrast, modern-day censuses maintain strict confidentiality of the information collected about individual persons or business firms.
The 1790 census counted 3.9 million inhabitants-a number which some people thought low-and raised membership in the U.S. House of Representatives from an original 65 to 105.
The Expanding Censuses...
Through the years, the Nation's requirements and interests changed. There was a real need for statistics to help interpret trends. The content of the decennial census changed accordingly.
The Law States What the Census Bureau Shall Collect
For many years, each census was authorized by a specific act of Congress. In 1954, that body brought together in Title 13 of the United States Code the laws under which the Census Bureau operates. This title spells out the basic scope of the censuses and surveys, the requirements for the public to provide information as well as for the Census Bureau to keep that information confidential, and the penalties for violating any of these obligations.
The Secretary of Commerce (and through him/her, the Census Bureau) is now directed by law to take censuses of population, housing, manufactures, mineral industries, other businesses (wholesale trade, retail trade, services), construction, transportation, and governments at stated intervals, and it also may take surveys related to any of these subjects.
Reports Are Confidential
The sole purpose of the censuses and surveys is to secure general statistical information. Replies are obtained from individuals and establishments only to enable the compilation of such general statistics. The confidentiality of these replies is very important. By law, no one-neither the census takers nor any other Census Bureau employee-is permitted to reveal identifiable information about any person, household, or business.
Finally, before any census tabulation is published, it is carefully checked to make certain that no individual, household, or organization can be identified, or information about it inferred by reading the table or by analyzing the figures it contains.
In the case of the population and housing census, the questionnaires are microfilmed before destruction, and the microfilm is stored under strict security conditions for use in the Census Bureau's National Processing Center at Jeffersonville, IN. Here, people who need proof of age or residence (for example), or their heirs or legal representatives, may obtain this evidence in the form of an official transcript.
Copies of population census schedules from 1790 through 1920, on microfilm, are available for research at the National Archives and nationwide. Subsequent records are closed to the public for 72 years to protect the confidentiality of the information they contain. (The Freedom of Information Act, designed to make records available to individuals, does not apply to identifiable data the Census Bureau collects for statistical purposes.)
How Important Are Census Statistics?
Ever since 1790, the population census statistics have been the official figures used to compute the number of congressional representatives allowed each state, and to align congressional district boundaries. The census figures are also used in redistricting state legislatures.